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Repressed Women In Literature

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Repressed Women in Literature

While the women of the short story “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, and the drama A Dollhouse by Henrik Ibsen lead very different lives, they are similar in one very obvious way. Both women feel trapped by their husbands and by the expectations society places on them. The repression of Louise and Nora is inflicted upon them by both self and society; how does one remain an individual while also conforming to the traditional female role mandated by society?

Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” is a short story about a woman with a heart condition named Louise Mallard, who after hearing the news of her husband’s death, retreats to her bedroom to celebrate her freedom from his “…powerful will bending hers with that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature (Chopin 343).” Once Louise collects herself enough to rejoin her sister and acquaintances downstairs, she enters the room at the exact same time her husband walks through the front door. At the sight of a living Brently, Louise drops dead of a heart attack, presumably, “of joy that kills” (Chopin 343).

Ibsen’s play, A Dollhouse, is the story of Nora Helmer, a housewife and mother to three young children. Her husband, Torvald, treats her like a child, giving her an allowance, monitoring her spending and calling her pet names like “sweet little spendthrift,” “squirrel,” and his “obstinate little woman” (Ibsen 1874, 1875, 1890). Nora pretends to be as unintelligent and agreeable as her husband believes she is in order to keep an illegal bank loan a secret. Once her secret is disclosed by a disgruntled bank employee and Torvald does not volunteer to take the blame for her crime, Nora realizes she no longer loves him and regrets the years she wasted pretending to be someone she is not. She leaves Torvald and their three children in order to “educate” herself (Ibsen 1917).

Mrs. Mallard in “The Story of an Hour” is a beautiful example of a repressed woman. Chopin describes her as “…young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength” (Chopin 343). Mrs. Mallard’s hidden strength and her personal desires seem to contrast with her husband’s wishes and expectations, which leads to the repression of her thoughts and feelings.

Nora Helmer in A Dollhouse is repressed in a very different way than Mrs. Mallard. Nora’s desire to keep her husband happy disables her from growing as a person. In order to keep her husband’s love she acts like a child. Performing for him, looking pretty, always being agreeable, and acting unintelligent are ways she enables her husband, Torvald, to feel as though he is superior to her. His need to feel superior and fatherly, forces Nora to further allow herself to be treated like a child.

While both Nora and Louise have a certain inner strength and determination, these traits are not revealed to their husbands. Both women seem to remain this way until they have an opportunity to make a change. In Mrs. Mallard’s case, her husband’s death is the only way she viewed herself as a free woman because divorce was not an option in 1894. After she learns of his death, she retreats to her bedroom where she, at first, tries to hold in the feeling of liberty, but when she can no longer hold it in she whispers “free, free, free” (Chopin 343). At this point in time, Mrs. Mallard becomes Louise to both the reader and herself. Chopin masterfully portrayed her only as a wife to Mr. Mallard up to this point by not revealing her given name of Louise. By naming her, Chopin illustrates that Louise is no longer a passive wife to her husband, but that she has transformed into her own woman. “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself” (Chopin 343).

Nora’s revelation does not occur until her husband uncovered the lie she had been telling him for years. She had taken out a loan in order to save Torvald’s life and forged her deceased father’s signature to obtain the money, as women were not allowed to borrow from a bank without a male cosigner. Once Torvald found out about her deceit and did not make a gallant effort to save her from it, she decided to stop acting like his plaything. It is at this point that she exerts her independence from the male patriarchy by stating; “I existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and Papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life (Ibsen).”

While there are many symbols throughout both texts which physically represent repression the most poignant in either story is the mailbox in “A Dollhouse.” The mailbox, to which Torvald holds the only key, literally holds Nora’s fate within it. Because Nils Krogstad put Nora’s loan note in the mailbox, Torvald would be the only person who had access to it, just as he was the only person who had access to Nora. According to Roberts and Jacobs in “Literature An Introduction to Reading and Writing” “…the ultimate disclosure of the box’s contents, rather than freeing Nora and Torvald, symbolizes her traditionally dependent role” (1871). The mailbox could also hold some sort of sexual symbolism. Torvald is the only person with the key to the mailbox, just as he assumes control over Nora by having complete and exclusive access to her. He is the only one to enter the mailbox, just as he is the only one to make love to his pretty wife. Another significant symbol in A Dollhouse is the title itself. Nora feels as though she has been treated like a doll by both Torvald and her father, being used to entertain, or to look pretty when it suited them. She also feels as though she has treated her own children like dolls she plays with to make herself happy. (Roberts and Jacobs 1870).

In “The Story of an Hour,” Mrs. Mallard’s name symbolizes her repression. According to Robbins, Bruun and Zim in “A Guide to Field Identification Birds of North America,” a mallard is a type of duck. Male mallards are beautiful with bright green heads, yellow bills, and rust-colored breasts, while females are mottled brown (44). Female mallards are plain in color in order to blend in with the



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